by: francopoli

comment by
Odder
badged comment
Odder  ·  link  ·  parent  ·  post: No, You Can’t Feel Sorry for Everyone

I heavily disagree with this article. It attempts to support its ideas with science, but it does so poorly. The article takes a few general trends and preliminary studies from psychology, and then ignores all uncertainty or nuance, and takes an absolutist point of view. Additionally, the author conflates sympathy with empathy.

    Social scientists have found that in-group love and out-group hate originate from the same neurobiological basis, are mutually reinforcing, and co-evolved—because loyalty to the in-group provided a survival advantage by helping our ancestors to combat a threatening out-group. That means that, in principle, if we eliminate out-group hate completely, we may also undermine in-group love. Empathy is a zero-sum game.

    Absolute universalism, in which we feel compassion for every individual on Earth, is psychologically impossible.

In one line break, the article went from a "may undermine" to a "psychologically impossible." Also mysteriously, despite the citations elsewhere in the article, the author failed to cite what study exactly showed this. The rest of the article can now be read without assuming any scientific support, which will mostly cast it as the angry ravings of an author who does not believe in social change.

    In 2006, then-Senator Barack Obama spoke at Northwestern University’s commencement bemoaning the country’s “empathy deficit” and urging people “to see the world through those who are different from us.” ...

    And then the pendulum swung back. People do care, newspaper editorialists and social-media commenters granted. But they care inconsistently: grieving for victims of Brussels’ recent attacks and ignoring Yemen’s recent bombing victims; expressing outrage over ISIS rather than the much deadlier Boko Haram; mourning the death of Cecil the Lion in Zimbabwe while overlooking countless human murder victims. There are far worthier tragedies, they wrote, than the ones that attract the most public empathy

The first paragraph complained about our former lack of, or inability to empathize. The second paragraph bemoans our supposedly new ability to empathize, because we aren't empathizing about the correct things. Rather than observe that this is an improvement, the author claims that this is a manifestation of our inability to empathize properly. There are many reasons why people empathize more with Brussels than Yemen, some of which have a bit to do with the ingroup/outgroup mechanics that this article has woefully misunderstood. But that's no reason to assert that it is impossible for westerners to feel sorry for Yemen. Hell, some Westerners do feel empathy toward Yemen, hence the complaints from some that we aren't taking violence throughout the world seriously enough. Many of us meet those rare, sorrowful people who seem capable of empathy towards everyone. If some people can do it, how is it impossible?

    We can and do override our moral instincts using our more logical and deliberative mode of thinking, so the in-group vs. out-group opposition is not absolute.

Well, this got weird. The remainder of the article is a scientist with no backing in philosophy entering the philosophical realm and thinking that data is the solution to all of our problems, while ignoring the actual problems. Apparently, morality should be determined by consensus reality, or something. Also, apparently Bentham was right, and we should just try to maximize individual happiness, because science. It's almost Sam Harris levels of stupid, but with moral relativism instead.

    Think of the great progress physicists made when they acknowledged the limitations of the physical world—nothing can move faster than light, or be perfectly localized in the subatomic realm. Similarly, we will make our greatest moral progress when we accept and work within the limitations of human moral cognition, and forego an unrealistic concern for respecting difference and moral diversity at any cost.

No, this is more like when the old scientists said that the sound barrier couldn't be broken, or that the human body could not run a 4 minute mile. Just because something is hard doesn't mean it's impossible.